The Art of Relaxed Productivity — Four Ideas from Jay Parini

JayParini-052212-0021-crop.jpgI read a wonderful memoir — The Art of Teaching by Jay Parini, professor of English at Middlebury College. Besides reflecting on the challenges of teaching college students, Parini sprinkles the book with gems about ways to get a lot of writing done.

This man is prolific. He has written 20 books and many articles. And he’s done this in the midst of a daily grind — lectures, seminars, advising, meetings, and the other minutiae of academic and family life.

How does Parini do it? By trashing several assumptions — for example, that productivity requires ascetic self-discipline, large blocks of time, sustained concentration, and large daily outputs. He’s replaced those ideas with options that sound a lot more practical and fun.

Cultivate a studied laziness

Most of us—including myself—waste vast amounts of time. I don’t actually mind that, I should add. Like Robert Frost, I believe that laziness is essential to creativity; I get a lot done because I have time to burn. I tell myself over and over that there is so much time, so little to do.

Seize small chunks of time

As a graduate student at St. Andrews, I watched a few of my more prolific mentors carefully. One of them, an extremely productive and original scholar of Greek literature, culture, and language, was Sir Kenneth Dover…. I once asked him the secret of his productivity and he said, without hesitation: “I’ve learned how to use the odd gaps of 20 minutes or so that occur at various points during the day”…. I suspect that most of us fail to use the hours of the day properly. We imagine, foolishly, that huge quantities of time are needed to settle into a project, to reactivate the engines of thought.

Welcome the structure provided by other commitments

I don’t care what they say: it is possible to write and teach and the same time. In fact, I have a hard time writing without teaching…. Teaching organizes my life, gives a structure to my week, puts before me certain goals: classes to conduct, books to reread, papers to grade, meetings to attend. I move from event to event, having a clear picture in my head of what I must do next.

Work in bursts

Most good work gets done in short stretches. It isn’t really possible to concentrate for more than half an hour without a solid break…. Even when I have the whole day to work, I stop every 20 minutes to make a cup of tea, eat a cookie, call a friend, do a little yoga or a few stomach crunches, shower, or take a short walk.

P.S. One of Parini’s inspirations is John Updike, who wrote 50 books and won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and other honors. And what was Updike’s daily output? Two pages. I’m a schmuck but that sounds totally do-able.